Here Comes Trouble

January 10, 2014 by Peter King
(Ted S. Warren/AP)
(Ted S. Warren/AP)

RENTON, Wash. — This is the time of year when the best teams are losing players or coping with diminished ones. New England’s second-leading tackler, Brandon Spikes, was IR’d this week as the Patriots prepare to face Indy. Chargers center Nick Hardwick and Saints corner Keenan Lewis are gamely trying to return from concussions. In advance of playing Tom Brady, the Colts lost a starting corner, Greg Toler, with a groin injury.

Then there’s Seattle. Percy Harvin spent the week frolicking around the Seahawks’ indoor practice field, looking for the first time like the most dangerous player in the league, which he might have been 15 months ago. You probably don’t remember this—seems like a career ago—but the last time Harvin was healthy, midway through the 2012 season, he was a legitimate NFL MVP candidate. He was on pace for a 120-catch season through eight games, and, as the league’s most dangerous kick returner, was averaging 35.9 yards a return.

Then he disappeared.

First there was an ankle injury that never improved, forcing him on season-ending injured reserve 13 months ago. That ended his Minnesota career, and he was traded in a monster deal (and for a monster new contract) to Seattle. But last summer, he couldn’t sprint without hip pain, and doctors found a labrum tear in his hip that required August surgery. He came back—almost certainly too soon—against Minnesota Nov. 17 and re-aggravated the hip injury. So in the last 24 games his team has played, Harvin has played a third of one of them, 20 offensive snaps, and the rest of the time he’s been swimming, bike-riding or lightly boxing—anything to keep the pressure off his hip so he could strengthen it in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, he could come back and play this postseason.

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It’s happening. Seattle coach Pete Carroll said Thursday Harvin will take the field Saturday afternoon when the NFC’s top seed, Seattle, which has earned said seed with precious little help from its explosive new toy, opens its postseason against New Orleans. “He’s gonna play, and I’m not going to restrict him in any way,” Carroll told The MMQB. And not just as a receiver: “He’ll return kicks.”

“I feel very confident,” Harvin said Thursday, after his second straight strenuous practice at the team’s indoor facility on a dreary day in Seattle. “I feel very good. I’m going to give it all I have.”

Harvin isn’t fully healthy, but the team believes he has reached a point in his rehabilitation where he can contribute as a receiver and returner with only a minimal chance of re-injuring himself. Eleven days ago, Carroll approached Harvin and told him the team might have to put him on injured-reserve if he wasn’t ready to try to return to the field. Harvin told Carroll, “Coach, I’m ready to play ball.” He practiced some last week, and had his second straight day of pain-free work this week Thursday.

“We just waited it out as long as we could,” said Carroll.

With the Saints already down two corners—Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson—and with green corner Corey White coming off a second-half burning by DeSean Jackson last week in Philadelphia, the addition of Harvin to Seattle’s arsenal could turn this game into New Orleans’ third straight nightmare trip to the great Northwest.

* * *

My home-heavy picks for the weekend, after my disastrous (but what else is new?) 1-3 weekend to open the postseason:

Saturday

Seahawks 27, Saints 20. The only way for the Saints to win, I believe, is for Drew Brees to play relatively mistake-free, which he hasn’t done for the last three road games. He’s thrown two interceptions in each of the last three, lost two, and was bailed out by a strong second half last week in Philadelphia. But it’s clearly fixable; Sean Payton knows what works and what doesn’t for Brees, so I expect he’ll play better here. I just think Seattle has too many weapons for a beleaguered Saints secondary to handle.

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Patriots 30, Colts 25. This may not be a Brady-Luck game. It may be a Blount-Brown game. The Pats and Colts defenses were 24th and 25th, at 4.46 and 4.47 yards per rush, and each has a dangerous edge rush. And can’t you just see Bill Belichick in his office at 5 one morning this week, running T.Y. Hilton tape back and forth, forth and back, looking for clues how to stop the Colts’ deep threat? Good thing Belichick’s got a smart center fielder, Devin McCourty, at his disposal.

Sunday

Niners 16, Panthers 12. Defense was dead in the Wild Card round. Not here. Colin Kaepernick will use Michael Crabtree just enough, and the bum knee of Steve Smith (if he even plays) will be a huge loss for Cam Newton. One proviso on this: The cat-quick Carolina linebackers (watch for Thomas Davis dropping stealthily into coverage in some zone blitzes) could turn this game if Kaepernick is careless against Davis and Luke Kuechly.

Broncos 30, Chargers 24. More collective breath-holding in a Peyton Manning playoff game.

Which would be as good a championship Sunday as any in memory, potentially. Early on Jan. 19, if my cloudy crystal ball is right for once: New England at Denver. Late: San Francisco at Seattle. That’s the kind of doubleheader that makes the NFL think: Maybe we should give each championship game its own day. I’d vote for that.

Player You Need to Watch This Weekend

Joe Staley, left tackle, San Francisco (No. 74). The Staley-Greg Hardy matchup is the best head-to-head match of the weekend. In the respected Pro Football Focus rankings, Staley’s the sixth-rated offensive tackle this season, with Hardy the third-best 4-3 end. Hardy’s on fire, too: seven sacks in his last two starts. Staley can play either way—athletically or physically. Remember how he got out on the flank in the playoff game against the Saints two years ago and led Alex Smith downfield on the long touchdown run? He can play that way or maul you. Hardy is a good speed rusher and can stunt inside too. This match, left tackle against right end, will be worth a FOX isolated camera Sunday afternoon.

Sound Bite of the Week

“It’s deafening. They do a great job. Their fans are educated. They understand when to be real loud and when to quiet down. The way the stadium is structured, the noise stays in. You just try to simulate it as best you can and turn those speakers up real loud and go about trying to communicate and making sure you are still getting off on the ball and all of those things.”

—Saints coach Sean Payton, on the difficulty of playing at Century Link Field, where the Saints got skunked 34-7 on Dec. 2.

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1. San Diego making it a game in Denver. I guess I’m not surprised that the Chargers are a heavy underdog this weekend in Denver, but I will be surprised if the Broncos rout them. As I’ve written this week, in their two meetings this season, Denver has outscored San Diego by a point, 48-47. San Diego has outrushed Denver, 308-102 in their games, Denver was held under 400 yards in both games against San Diego this year—and had more than 400 in every other game. San Diego has the strength of Manning’s 2012 offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, as its head coach now, and McCoy has the kind of institutional knowledge sure to have some bearing on this game.

2. The curse of the AFC top seed. I find this startling: Since the NFL went to the 12-team playoff in 1990, the top seed in the AFC is only 13-10 in the divisional round. The 14-2 Patriots fell to the Jets in 2010; the 13-3 Broncos got taken down in the second overtime by Baltimore last year. Thus, uneasy the Broncos will sleep Saturday night before their late game against the Chargers Sunday. For comparison’s sake, the NFC top seed is 19-4 in the divisional round.

3. The first pick versus 36th pick in the 2011 draft. Colin Kaepernick, the 36th, travels to face the first, Cam Newton of Carolina. “It’s not something I’ll forget,” Kaepernick said this week about falling into the second round in ’11. Newton beat the Niners in San Francisco in November. So this is Kaepernick’s chance at some road revenge.

4. Ken Whisenhunt and the Lions. Sure looks like he’s the leader in the clubhouse to begin to solve the Matthew Stafford riddle. President Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew now have to wait until the Chargers lose before moving things along with Whisenhunt, according to NFL rules.

5. Some coach to take the lead in Minnesota, Cleveland, Tennessee. Though I don’t see what the rush is. Mike Zimmer, Ben McAdoo and Greg Roman, in order, are the most intriguing names in the three places.

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6. The Jay Gruden aftermath, and the RG3 reaction. Don’t fall into the lazy category and say because the Bengals have been lousy on offense in the playoffs that Gruden is no Jon Gruden. I don’t buy it. If you want to question Jay Gruden as being too pass-happy and letting his run game go to seed, fine. That’s valid. He’ll succeed or fail on his ability to get Robert Griffin III to play great.

7. The Hall of Fame debate. My quibble: No Jimmy Johnson. He deserves to have his case heard in the room by the 46 selectors, and this year he won’t. No major surprises when the Hall of Fame announced the 15 finalists Thursday night. I see one near-lock: Walter Jones.

8. The coaching upset special. You’d be surprised to see Ben McAdoo get a job, wouldn’t you? I would too—but remember that McAdoo this year is what Andy Reid was in 1999 (the Green Bay quarterback coach) when Joe Banner and the Eagles hired him as head coach. Banner’s in Cleveland now, and his coach-whisperer was Mike Lombardi, now the Browns GM. All Reid did in 14 Eagle years was win 140 games. Conclude from that what you will.

9. The prospect of Brady-Manning XV. The AFC Championship Game in nine days will be the early game, meaning the biggest drama of the day could be a matinee—if the Pats and Broncos cooperate this weekend.

10. Greatness awaits. All-time postseason touchdown leaders: Joe Montana 45, Brett Favre 44, Tom Brady 42. A Brady-Andrew Luck shootout in Foxboro Saturday night, which I don’t think is likely, could leave Brady atop the list by midnight.